A new home: State wildlife officials release orphaned bear cub back into the wild
TAHOE NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. – A sedated black bear lies on the tailgate of Marc Kenyon’s truck. Kenyon is trying to draw a sample of blood from the animal, but he can’t find the artery. He pokes once. He pokes twice. When Kenyon tries a third time, the 68-pound cub, despite being subdued by a muscle relaxer, growls.
“She’s a grumpy bear,” said Kenyon, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, during the cub’s release Tuesday afternoon north of Truckee. “That’s good.”
The bruin was first spotted last May near Carnelian Bay. The yearling was perched in a tree, crying – presumably for its mother. When the sow failed to return after three days, the cub descended on its own.
Fish and Game biologists took the 16-pound, 4-month-old orphan to Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, in South Lake Tahoe – the only facility licensed by Fish and Game to rehabilitate bears for release into the wild.
There, the center’s executive director, Cheryl Millham, and her husband and agency partner, Tom Millham, allowed the bear to develop its natural instincts and tendencies.
“We don’t talk to them. No talking, no babying, no interaction. They don’t see us put the food out,” said Cheryl Millham. “We do it from behind a wall so they never see us give them food.”
The Millhams made natural foods available to the bear, such as eggs, acorns, apples and berries on the bush. Small pools and cement ponds were stocked with fish to teach the bear the association between fish and water. And when autumn temperatures dipped, the Millhams cut back on portions to mimic seasonal variations of the food supply. The cub, as it would in the wild, began building a den.
“The only thing we can’t teach them is to be wary of cars, but even their mothers can’t teach them that. It doesn’t come natural,” said Millham.
Kenyon said he’s happy to know that after eight months of captivity, the bear still associates people with negative experiences. It will keep it wild for life, he said.
Next, Kenyon performs last-minute medical tests. He takes the bear’s blood pressure, temperature, pulse and respiration rate. When Kenyon punches through the skin of the cub’s ear with a radio tag, the bear growls again.
He and his team lift and carry the medicated bear to a den specially prepared by wildlife biologist Sarah Holm. The shelter is a collection of sticks balanced together in wigwam fashion. Inside the structure, Holm had laid out a bed of evergreen branches.
“I picked a place on the north-facing slope where it’s cooler. Hopefully it will help the bear stay asleep until spring,” she said.
The bear’s sedative will wear off soon, and the cub may wander around the site for a bit. Kenyon said he hopes the cub will decide the den is satisfactory and use it for the rest of the winter’s sleep.
“We release them at this time of the year because it gives the bear an area to call home in the spring,” he said.
Bear rehabilitation is a part of Fish and Game’s regular bear management program. Five cubs will be released by Kenyon and his team this month. All the bears were rehabilitated at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.
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